Posted by Chris Jack on 10 June 2014

In teaching about worship, I often get groups to imagine they are one of the earliest gatherings of Christians and suggest what their worship might have looked like. It’s an illuminating exercise.

Usually a whole range of ingredients is proposed. Some of these ideas can be explicitly substantiated from the New Testament. Others may only be inferred, with varying degrees of probability. Yet others are more a reflection of people’s own practices or those established within Christian tradition. The truth is that the New Testament has relatively little to say in this area. Yes, it contains direction as to how we should worship. But this guidance has much more to do with the heart of worship than with the specific forms it should take.

Significantly, we do not have a single description of a service of worship in the entire New Testament! Granted, there are a few passages that discuss aspects of such services (see 1 Cor. 11; 14), but nowhere do we find an order of service or a description of a complete service.

So what shape did their worship take? What were their structures? Or, indeed, were there any? Where were the announcements slotted: at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? Or did they simply photocopy them and not have a slot for them at all? My example is flippant, but the point is serious. The bottom line is that we do not have sufficient data to allow us to reconstruct a worship service from New Testament times. Moreover, any information we do have points towards a certain amount of diversity of practice within the Early Church, and not a rigid uniformity. In other words, there is no set pattern.

Why is it, we might inquire, that God has not made things more clear for us? Wouldn’t it have been better to have a fixed pattern for all to follow? Wouldn’t that have eliminated so much of the unholy squabbling and infighting that too often goes on in churches over how we should worship? Why has God not given us fixed patterns? May I suggest that first it is because He has given us something far superior — His Spirit! So Jesus said that we must worship God in spirit and in truth (see John 4:24; see also the teaching of Paul in relation to the Spirit’s role in worship in 1 Cor. 12—14).
Second, changing times and circumstances call for changing practicalities. We find evidence of this within the New Testament itself. In the book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem decided to pool their material resources and live as a kind of extended family (see Acts 4—5). However, there is no mention of any other church doing this, either in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament.

At the same time, worship is not a free-for-all. Although we have neither precise patterns nor a fixed order of service, the New Testament does contain numerous passages that flag, either explicitly or implicitly, various ingredients of the corporate worship of the early Christians:

  • Prayer (see Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 2:1; 1 Cor. 11:4f.; 14:16; 1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:1-3)
  • Reading of Scripture (see 1 Tim. 4:13; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Thess. 3:14; Col. 4:15-16; 2 Pet. 3:15-16)
  • Preaching (see Acts 2:42; 6:2; Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 15:1-8; 2 Tim. 1:13f.)
  • Table fellowship (see Acts 2:42; 20:7, cf. vv. 20, 25, 28)
  • Singing (see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:15f; 1 Cor. 14:15, 26; cf. 1 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 5:9-13; 11:17f.; 15:3-4)
  • Giving to the poor (see 2 Cor. 9:11-15; Phil. 4:16-18; Heb. 13:16)
  • Taking up a collection/offering (see 1 Cor. 16:2)
  • Public confession of faith (see 1 Tim. 6:12; 1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 13:15; cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-3)
  • Receiving God’s blessing (see 2 Cor. 13:14; Luke 24:50)
  • The holy kiss of greeting (see Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14)
  • Response of “Amen” (1 Cor. 14:16; Rev. 5:14; cf. Rom. 1:25; 9:5; Eph. 3:21, etc.)
  • Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist (see Acts 2:42; 20:7, 11; 1 Cor. 11:2-26)
  • Confession (see 1 Pet. 3:21)
  • Giving thanks (see 1 Cor. 11:24; Col. 3:17)
  • Use of spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 14)

Many questions remain unanswered as to how these elements functioned within worship in terms of frequency, order and timing. As Arthur Patzia puts it:

‘The challenge of writing about worship in the early Church is not unlike the work of a detective gathering pieces of evidence to solve a crime or a person attempting to assemble a complicated jigsaw puzzle.’

Imagine how it would be if we had an order of service in the New Testament. There would be no room for flexibility, creativity or spontaneity. May I say reverently that I am quite sure that God knew what He was doing when He ordained that we should not have such a record. It was no mistake!

 


Taken from 'InsideOut Worship: Matt Redman and Friends' published by Survivor.

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